Mass tourism is not a benign force of economic development, as popularly supposed. It rather corrodes the health, well-being and environment of the societies it collides with, while the promised benefits fail to materialise for the great majority of people.
This article, one of the first ever critiques of mass tourism, was published in The Ecologist Vol. 4 No. 2, February 1974, and republished in The Doomsday Funbook (Jon Carpenter Books, February 2006).
See ordering information for the Funbook.
In 1971, 181 million tourists visited another country, 7 percent more than the year before. In 1980, if current trends continue, the figure is likely to be close to 325 million. Many would regard such wholesale tourism as a major triumph of industrial society. Foreign travel, once the privilege of the few, has become the prerogative, some would even say the right, of the many. But is it doing anyone any good, and at what cost to the environment?
In the past the traveller set off intrepidly, armed with flower press-book and sketch-book to record the curiosities of yet uncharted lands. Today the tourist is packed off with a batch of his fellows to a resort that has been carefully prepared to cater for his every whim and fancy. There he will be treated above all as a consumer of what has become, throughout the world, very standard fare.
As Baldwin points out in the Travel Agent, “There is little to differentiate between a high-rise hotel in Ibiza and one in Oahu.” As far as the guests are concerned,
“If you could employ a giant helicopter to transfer them over-night, hardly anyone would notice it. The swimming pools, sleek coffee-shops, souvenir stands, even people would all bear the same jet-age patina: the same plastic conformity.”
What in fact is the tourist likely to see which will add to his knowledge of the world, of the people who inhabit it or of the societies and cultural forms that they have developed? The answer is very little. As Rivers writes in The Restless Generation, the tourist is
“lucky to . . . meet any inhabitants apart from waiters, guides, taxi drivers and gift sellers . . . The manufactured scene is a blend of an environment to make him feel at home and an atmosphere in keeping with the country’s promoted image.”
A cursory look at standard advertising material indicates that what the tourist seeks are nothing other than the four Ss: – sun, sea, sand and sex. All of which can be provided remarkably cheaply – sufficiently so to make of tourism the multi-billion dollar business which it is. But does the price paid actually represent the true cost? What about health hazards both to the endemic population and those who are travelling?
The common cold is for us a mild, if inconvenient, complaint. We have built up our natural resistance to it. Many people, such as the Eskimos, have never encountered it before. The common cold for them could he lethal. Similarly when we visit foreign countries we encounter germs and viruses which have little effect on the local population but which can be harmful to us. Rivers lists among the health problems encountered by tourists:
“diarrhoea, headaches, unexplained fatigue, digestive upsets, loss of weight, typhoid, para-typhoid, cholera, dysentery, brucellosis, infectious hepatitis, worms, malaria, kala agar, yellow fever and sleeping sickness.”
Venereal disease is also a hazard. In 1970 15 percent of the new cases of syphilis in the UK were contracted abroad, and at least nine diseases are associated with people swimming in waters polluted with human faecal matter.
Worse still mass tourism is having a devastating effect on local inhabitants. In the Dutch half of the Island of St Martin a resident population of 7,000 plays host to 130,000 visitors a year—all in an area of 16 square miles. In Spain the Tourist Development Plan caters for 49.5 million tourists in 1980 compared with a resident population of 35 million. The Madrid newspaper ABC is already accusing the 25 million tourists who visited Spain last year of turning large parts of the country into
“an alien land where foreign languages are spoken, foreign currency is accepted and Spaniards discriminated against. In 1001 small and big things, one can detect the existence of a new colonial-tourism being imposed on them in a way which is dangerous.”
People naturally suspicious of foreigners have their suspicions confirmed by some of the very visible consequences of mass tourism. Inevitably land values increase. More often than not prices rise so steeply that it becomes difficult, often impossible, for local people to buy themselves a house.
Often too, land required for housing is taken up by hotels and other tourist amenities. In London, if present plans materialise, hotel construction is due to take up another 660 acres of valuable building land while house-building programmes are already compromised, because of a shortage of more than 5,000 acres.
Another consequence of mass tourism is the change it has on local employment patterns and hence on the society’s economy. In St Lucia for instance, the tourist boom has caused a flight from the land and since the peak of the tourist season coincides with the harvest and fruit-picking time, the effect on agriculture has been disastrous. This is also true in the Seychelles where it is increasingly difficult to find workers for the plantations. While in North Africa, as Julian Pettifer puts it, “the Bedouins have left their flocks to shepherd the tourists and the ship of the desert has become a pleasure boat”.
This tendency towards replacing agriculture by tourism has many disadvantages, some of which have already been mentioned. It is often the case that tourists tend to eat imported food, also that the hotels are foreign-owned and profits thereby leave the island, and often, as in St. Lucia, tourist undertakings are exempt of tax.
Another disadvantage is that workers in the tourist industry must often be imported. In Britain, a very large proportion of them are foreigners. It seems unreasonable to import any more into what is already one of the most overpopulated countries in the world. In Switzerland, the hotel industry is clamouring for another 40,000 workers. The quota at present is for half this number. If they are obtained, then half of the workers in the hotel industry would be foreigners.
Work in the hotel industry tends to be poorly paid. Hours are very long, so much so that this sort of work must have some effect on family life. Work as maids and waitresses gives full scope to the opportunity for marital infidelity. This is the theme of Dr. Francis Cottrington who has gone so far as to link growth in the tourist industry with an increase in the divorce rate.
Most depressing of all is the effect of mass tourism on local cultural patterns which are distorted for touristic purposes. Premier James Mitchell of St Vincent recently said,
“the tourist dollar alone unrestricted is not worth the devastation of my people. A country where the people have lost their soul is no longer a country.”
In Mexico the choice is very much between the tourist dollar and the Mexican soul. Here 60 percent of the tourist revenue comes from 90 million United States citizens, driving over the border in order to spend $900 million in the red light areas of Tijuana, Ciudad, Juares etc.
As Sir George Young (Tourism) points out,
“these ‘boys towns’ as Americans call them or ‘zones of tolerance’ as the Mexicans describe them, are visually unattractive and act as a magnet for crime and prostitution. Were it not for the foreign exchange they generate they would have been unquestionably closed years ago.”
Most eloquent of all is the response of the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox church. In 1971 it published a new prayer:
“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on the cities, the islands and the villages of our Orthodox Fatherland, as well as the Holy Monasteries which are scourged by worldly touristic ways. Grace us with a solution to this dramatic problem and protect our brethren who are sorely tried by the modernistic spirit of these contemporary western invaders.”
It is unnecessary to dwell at length on the devastating effect of mass tourism on the physical environment. Practically no accessible area of great natural beauty which is close to the sea, is entirely exempt. A large part of the coast of Southern Spain, of the South of France and of the Italian Riviera have already been mutilated beyond redemption with countless hotels together with their associated amenities.
The Mediterranean is already so badly contaminated with sewage, oil and industrial works that in a few decades it may be transformed into a near-lifeless waste. The Baltic and the North Sea are probably in an even worse state. The Black Sea too is extremely polluted. This terrible damage obviously cannot all be attributed to tourism but it has certainly played its part.
An island which has suffered particularly from tourism is Hawaii. This once beautiful island is disfigured with countless skyscrapers. Six lane highways cater for over 300,000 cars and, during the season, every ten minutes a jetliner lands with a new cargo of tourists. The pilot, as Wehrheim points out,
“need not check his instruments or consult his navigator to know when his plane is nearing its destination. He can spot the murky grey-brown pall that hangs over the city while still miles out to sea. Looking down into the ocean he can see its natural blues and green are discoloured with erosion, industrial waste and raw sewage.” ["Paradise Lost", The Ecologist Vol. 1 No. 10.]
The damage caused by tourism is rapidly becoming apparent to even the blindest among us and is at last beginning to be reflected in monetary costs. Already 6,000 registered beaches in Italy are dangerously polluted – some have a bacterial count five times higher than the accepted limit.
Experts can always be found who claim no harm can come from swimming in human excrement. But for how long are people going to believe such myths. For how much longer are they going to spend their holidays being shepherded in ever worse discomfort from one airport to another, to ever more contrived and artificial surroundings in an increasingly deteriorated landscape?
The decision may have already been taken out of their hands. Mass tourism is likely to be one of the first victims of the energy crisis. This is very good news for the environment and probably not really such bad news for the tourists.
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